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Data center power backup options to deal with downtime

Generators, UPS systems and batteries work in tandem to safeguard data centers against power outages, fluctuations and grid failures. Admins must know what system is best for them.

A reliable supply of power is necessary for data centers. Power outages lead to devastating consequences, from data loss to system downtime, and significantly impact a business's operations and reputation.

To reduce the likelihood of impacts from power outages, data center administrators must choose a backup power system. Popular backup power systems are diesel generators, but more environmentally friendly options are available and encouraged, like lithium batteries. However, assessment of the equipment that needs to run on backup power must be done to choose the best system for a data centers.

Benefits of backup power systems for data centers

A backup power system provides redundancy and resilience to keep critical infrastructure online, whether it be a small power fluctuation or a full outage. Most data centers use a combination of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems and diesel backup generators for backup power. Some companies are testing and researching hydrogen-powered and longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries, but the UPS-generator combination is still the most common.

Data center backup power options

Data centers need a long-term backup power source to support them during potential prolonged outages. Long-term options, like diesel generators, take a few minutes to start. Since longer-term backup power does not instantly turn on, facility owners must look at short-term backup power to deal with brief power fluctuations.

UPS platforms

UPS systems are usually the data center's first option for backup power. They ensure that all hardware has consistent power, which prevents overheating and system failures if power fluctuates or drops completely.

They offer scalability, higher redundancy and high energy efficiency. Many vendors now use lithium-ion batteries instead of lead-acid batteries because they have longer life spans and faster recharge times. Some vendors also incorporate smart technology for more efficient and predictive power management to handle complex power needs in real time.

Some data center operators integrate modern UPS systems with renewable energy sources and innovative energy storage.

Some data center operators integrate modern UPS systems with renewable energy sources and innovative energy storage. This integration aligns operations with sustainability initiatives and additional backup power sources. Google's data center in Chile, for example, integrates wind power for its primary and backup power solutions.

Backup generators

Diesel backup generators are a tried-and-true backup power option for data centers. There are three classifications due to generator usage: emergency standby (200 hours maximum operation per year), prime (unlimited hours per year) and continuous. Some popular generator brands for data centers are Caterpillar, Cummins and Generac.

Emissions and noise regulations are a challenge for diesel generator permits. Although diesel generators are common for backup power, data centers might need to move to alternative options.

Batteries and sustainable energy

With the price of lithium-ion batteries falling over the last few years, it's more feasible to add them to the backup power system. Google, for example, has a 24/7 year-round data center in Belgium run by battery backup power.

Microsoft and TotalEnergies' Saft have a partnership to develop batteries specifically for data centers. Microsoft is also testing hydrogen fuel cells to replace UPS systems and backup generators.

Choosing the right backup power system for your data center

Data centers generally only have two options for backup power: UPS systems and backup generators. However, these two can combine in various ways when admins consider a data center's requirements and location. Below are a few considerations for choosing the right backup power system for your data center.

Record and analyze power usage

Most servers only use 50% of their CPU capacity at any given time. To know how much backup power is necessary, track, record and analyze the hardware's actual usage, not the official power ratings of servers and hardware.

Understand the tech stack

In the event of a power fluctuation or outage, it's essential to know which hardware must have constant power and which shouldn't. This funnels power to the systems that need it to maintain continuity.

Ensure compliance with standards

Understand standards, such as American National Standards Institute or ISO certifications, and how they apply to power outages and backup infrastructure. If a data center has standards, ensure backup power is set in a specific way or to a particular level to meet them.

Understand the location and relevant guidelines

Physical location might have outside guidelines that impact backup infrastructure, such as noise levels. It's critical to know of and comply with the guidelines in regular operations and in the event of an outage. For example, during off-hours, test the backup generator because of noise levels and possible local restrictions. During an outage, run the generator as needed.

Decide on a backup power plan

Here are some key questions to consider when deciding on a backup power plan:

  • How long will the UPS run before the generator takes over?
  • What's the maximum number of hours the UPS can run before it fails?
  • Does the data center need an emergency standby, prime or continuous generator?
  • What hardware can shut down to preserve power?
  • Is the backup power process documented? If so, how often is it reviewed and updated?

Julia Borgini is a freelance technical copywriter and content marketing strategist who helps B2B technology companies publish valuable content.

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